Safety First: A New Mexico Middle School Safeguards Students by Diffusing Clique Rivalries
- Ground Rules Help Quell Violence
- Gang Leaders Promote the Peace
- Sports Rivalries Neutralize Clique Feuds
It was the older guys who first tried recruiting kids from Memorial Middle Schoolinto the East Side Locals or Los Hermanos. What was the harm? It wasn't like LHor the East Siders were dangerous or anything. They were partying gangs,different from the hardcore gangsters 100 miles away in Albuquerque. Besides, wayup in northern New Mexico, in a dinky town like Las Vegas, what else was there todo? Hang out at the local bird sanctuary?
And anyway, everything was cool with Los Hermanos-as long as the East Sidersremembered that LH ran Memorial Middle School. And the ESLs could kick backpretty good about a lot of stuff-until one of those LHers dissed an East Sidehomeboy. When that happened, Los Hermanos would have to pay. That's it. They'dpay...
Carmen Holguin, principal of Memorial Middle School in Las Vegas, New Mexico, institutedtwo unique school safety programs that quelled potentially dangerous studentrivalries before serious violence occurred.
The creation of safe schools, free of violence and conducive to learning, numbersamong the national education goals-an ideal promulgated by two presidents,endorsed by congressional members from both sides of the aisle, and promoted bygovernors from all 50 states. While the Centers for Disease Control givesviolence prevention plans to community activists, the National Association ofState Boards of Education issues recommendations that schools adopt conflictresolution and character education curricula.
But gang and clique rivalriescan bring violence to campuses, nullifying school administrators' efforts to makeschools safe. Even when rivalries remain as implied threats rather than tangiblerealities, they can still undermine the educational mission that underpins everyschool.
What methods safeguard students? How can rivalries be contained?Carmen Holguin, principal of Memorial Middle School in Las Vegas, New Mexico, institutedtwo unique school safety programs that quelled potentially dangerous studentrivalries before serious violence occurred.
A SEDL research site, Memorialis better known for its pilot program combining middle school education with aschools-within-a-school structure called the Family Plan. But other Memorial programs are noteworthy. The school's gang intervention plan, for instance,diluted a menace while teaching a small but influential band of at-risk eighthgraders lessons in diplomacy, compromise, trust, self-esteem, leadership, and,incidentally, English composition. More recently, Memorial's use of weeklymidmorning basketball games showed a new generation of gang members and theirrivals, the school athletes, that sports contests could advance into mutualregard. Memorial's promising practices may help other educators create andmaintain order on their campuses while providing high-quality instruction to thestudents in their care.
Gang rivalry confronted Carmen Holguin, MemorialMiddle School's principal, in the spring of 1992. Of course, Memorial hadexperienced the usual difficulties of middle schools: truancy, occasional fights,cussouts, spats over boyfriends or girlfriends, the feelings and reputationsbruised by rumor or gossip. Meriting additional attention were a handful ofstudents whose transfer records named parole officers or case workers with theNew Mexico Department of Social Services. Some of those kids openly defied theset of strict rules and behavioral expectations that Holguin imposed. An evensmaller group of special education students had arrived at Memorial fromthroughout the town and the surrounding districts, the students' behavior tightlyconstrained by contracts drafted by Holguin and signed by the students and theirparents or guardians.
But the gang problems-they felt different. Theyintroduced a tension to the school unlike any that guidance counselor Cip Chavez hadexperienced in 20 years of service at Memorial.
"We were having a lot ofconflict, a lot of posturing, a lot of verbal conflicts. I sensed that we were onthe verge of some major violence at our school," Chavez said.
Rather thanignoring the gangs or turning matters over to the police or juvenile authorities,Holguin and her staff intervened. At that time, Chavez recalled an incident in1985 in which Albuquerque gang members wrote a peace treaty to end theirwar.
Assisted by counselors, those gang members met, negotiated terms, and crafted atruce themselves. A similar process might alleviate Memorial's tensions, Chavezsuggested, even if its only result was to stake out the middle school campus asneutral ground.
Memorial's gang problems were-and are-far less grim thanother schools'. Most of Memorial's gang members were "wanna-bes" only, Holguin said.They were kids imitating fashionable images absorbed from popular culture. Theschool had escaped lethal violence. There had been many fistfights, and a knifeflashed once at a dance, but Holguin had yet to confiscate a gun. The facilitiesimprovement budget went to renovating classrooms or erasing graffiti, not tometal detectors.
Plus, when she began to tackle the battling gangs, Holguinhad a decided advantage: she knew what went on in her school. Theschools-within-a-school arrangement of the Family Plan allowed Holguin and herfaculty to monitor Memorial students fairly closely. Almost every student enjoyeda relationship with at least one adult on staff.
Which, in fact, turnedoff some students, said Holguin. "One of the things the kids don't like is that weknow too much about them," she said. "We'll call kids in and say, 'We heard thisis going on.' We'll tell them, 'If A happens, B will be the consequence.'"
Further, Holguin had several discipline policies in place, giving consistency toher contacts with disorderly students. She upholds these policies today. Leadingthe list was a "zero tolerance" rule for violent outbursts. Automatic expulsionfor one year faced any student caught carrying a firearm. Holguin also appliedlegal restraints, filing charges when a student broke another's nose in afistfight and routinely prosecuting student perpetrators of criminal vandalism orassault. Pushing matches and verbal confrontations were penalized with penaltiesof three- to ten-day suspensions, in-school detentions, or chores such as trashor cafeteria detail. Parents or guardians were always notified immediately afteran incident.
Nonetheless, Holguin allowed herself the latitude to assesseach incident and to dole out discipline based on the circumstances of each case. Soit was no surprise that she agreed when Chavez proposal treaty-making as asolution to gang rivalries. Perhaps by writing a treaty, students would learntheir actions-good or bad-had consequences-good or bad. Holguin was also guidedby a conviction: middle school is the last chance to redeem some troubledstudents; high school is just too late.
When Holguin intervened, gang members had beenbaiting each other, their fights outside of school becoming more frequent andvicious. Whenever an East Sider struck a Los Hermanos member, the LHersretaliated, and vice versa. Escalating violence had enmeshed a widening circle ofyouths.
Into this situation stepped Chavez. He first attempted to penetratethe cultures and structures of Los Hermanos and the East Side Locals. One by one, hecalled gang members into the counseling office, probing casually, asking aboutgang homeboys and beliefs. He learned the gang members were "very turf-minded"and prized respect. He also realized gang leaders wielded clout that he coulduse to fashion a truce-and without their support, peacemaking attempts wouldfail.
Chavez brought realistic expectations and specific objectives to thesituation. He never aimed to wipe out the gangs; that would have been beyond hisscope. Instead, he decided to be satisfied if he could prevent gang members fromstaging their conflicts at school. Chavez understood that some of the boys wereadrift, that belonging to their gang gave them a connection to communityotherwise missing from their lives. So Chavez never asked the gangsters toabandon their homeboys, although he supported those who walked away later. Heacknowledged the youths' positive attitudes, their pride in neighborhood andfamily, their loyalty to friends. Nonetheless, when counseling the boys, Chavezemphasized the negative consequences of the rivalry, inviting gang members tochoose a course of action themselves.
One by one, Chavez and Jackie Alarid, theother Memorial guidance counselor, persuaded six gang leaders to meet theirrivals and negotiate a truce. East Side Locals leader T. Z. Solis, now 16, saidAlarid convinced him to make peace, "because no one would mess with me any more.I wouldn't have thought about how it would be better for me. They gave me theinformation that the treaty could be useful to me."
How useful became apparentduring the four weeks that gang leaders drafted and refined the treaty ininformal writing sessions led by Chavez. The boys wrote about gang life, codes ofhonor, and the rivalry and how they felt about it. By eliminating restrictions onsubject matter or language, Chavez demonstrated he would not judge the boys. Inreturn, the gang leaders grew to trust him. They wrote freely, and theircompositions caused them to examine their actions and the repercussions of theiractions.
Slowly, the gang leaders worked out their agreement. They presented theterms to their homeboys for approval and modification, returning to the treatytable with changes. The leisurely process led most of the gang members toconsensus while promoting an individual sense of ownership in the treaty andpride in their accomplishment.
Los Hermanos leader Daniel Salazar, now 16, saidit was hard to persuade the homeboys in his gang to initiate the treaty.Antagonism was high and memory of harassment long. "We were always at eachother's necks in the hallways," he said. Intergang rivalry was so intense,Salazar added, "there was one of the homeboys who just couldn't sign the paper."He concentrated on other LHers.
Nonetheless, 26 boys altogether signed their"Peace Out," as they called their agreement. They agreed to follow ten rules ofconduct on the Memorial campus, as written in the treaty:
- No gang signs (use of hand signals)
- No ranking in at school (recruiting and initiating new members)
- No mad-dogging (exchanging intimidating stares and threatening postures)
- If a fight breaks out, keep it 1 on 1
- Don't talk smack (insult or incite someone to rage)
- Donx't involve innocent people
- Don't involve familia
- No fighting at school
- No vandalism, no plaks (marking gang turf with graffiti)
- Give respect, earn respect
And thetreaty worked. There were no gang-related incidents at the middle school for thenext three months, until the 1992-93 school year was winding down. Even then, afight at a school choir concert was instigated by gang members from anotherschool, Memorial's cross-town rival, Holguin said.
The relative peace extendedinto the following school year as well. During that time, Los Hermanos disbanded,virtually canceling out the gang-to-gang rivalry. But in May 1994, Holguinreported that, despite minor episodes of graffiti or gang dress, "gang activitywas almost nonexistent" at Memorial.
Today, Chavez voices admiration for theyouths who put aside their hostilities to bring peace to their school and safetyto themselves, especially the six gang leaders. He's convinced the boys kept thetruce because the plan was their own and they had a stake in its success.
"It waslike they assumed the role of the caretakers. They went against the grain of alltheir philosophy," he said. "They were actually willing to sit down with therival gang and talk peace. Here was an opportunity for them to do somethingpositive!
"I got criticized by some of my own colleagues," Chavez continued."They were saying that I catered to the gangsters. Yet when I see the disciplineand righteousness of what these boys did, I say, 'Hey! That means something.'"
The 1994-95 school year was uneventfuluntil November. Then, about 30 Memorial students got into the dogpile on thegrass outside the gym.
As Eli Ortiz, 14, told it, some of his fellow gang membersand some of their rivals, the school athletes, were hanging out during lunchbreak when a gangster "started talking smart. And that was it." One boy waspunched to the ground. Two more piled on top of him. A couple more leaped onthem, creating a heap of bellowing boys, slugging it out.
Teachers broke up thedogpile and hustled the agitated students into a school commons. Holguin quicklyunderstood the situation. She had another group rivalry on her hands. This time,however, the opponents weren't competing gangs. It was "the gangsters against thejocks," in the words of Michael Garduño, 14, a leading school athlete.
Holguin was in a dilemma. How should she discipline the boys? Suspend all 30 students forfighting? That wouldn't end the rivalry; it might even exacerbate it. The problemcalled for a smarter solution-perhaps one suggested by the students themselves.In discussions held between the rival cliques and led by Chavez and Alarid, thekids had made lists of their similarities and differences. Jock or gangster, theboys shared their interests in two topics: girls and sports in general-and girlsand basketball in particular. Why not play ball with the students, Holguindecided.
Memorial's weekly basketball program began a week later. Twenty kids,ten on the Gangsters squad and ten on the Jocks team, filed into the gym.
Thefirst basketball game almost became the last after a Gangster fouled a Jock. When a referee reprimanded the Gangster, he hurled a ball at an opponent. All 20players from throughout the gym and the bench streamed to center court, pushingand shouting.
As usual, Holguin responded to the incident instantly. She wassufficiently angry to consider halting the program altogether. Yet she mulledover the matter, ultimately choosing to suspend only the boy who incited thecourt fight. She also told the Jock and Gangster captains that the fight nearlykilled the program. But, Holguin continued, the games might continue if all theplayers followed certain guidelines.
The boys complied. Each Monday, teamcaptains presented Chavez with a roster of five students-and only fivestudents-who would play in Wednesday morning's game. Once the roster wassubmitted, no variations were allowed. Holguin had to approve every player. Ifthe student was absent or if he didn't pass the principal's muster, his team wasshort a player.
Holguin added teeth to the restrictions: she defined play as aprivilege available only to students with spotless behavior during the previousweek. If a boy racked up one single discipline referral, he was automaticallydisqualified. This condition helped Holguin undercut any student perceptions thatoutlaw behavior was "cool" or remotely tolerable to school administrators. Italso transformed peer pressure into a disciplinary tool. Team captains werenudged into drafting players who stayed out of trouble, attended schoolfaithfully, and delivered on the court. Playing basketball for one class periodbecame the palpable reward for good conduct during the rest of the week.
Sincegames were scheduled during the mandatory bilingual education class period,students were to speak Spanish on the court. Rough play and profanity were¡Prohibido! Players were also required to attend pre- or post-game talkswhere Chavez reviewed teamwork along with strategies for establishing positiverelationships and conflict resolution methods.
Even though they were closed tospectators, the games became the talk of Memorial Middle School. Basketballchatter filled Wednesday afternoons. Final scores were announced over the schoolloudspeakers among assembly announcements and club meeting dates. Naturally,participation became a status symbol. Getting out of class to play ball wasgreat! Plus, the Gangsters gloried in the attention that had always been theexclusive domain of the Jocks.
It mattered little to the Gangsters or to theJocks that the athletes won almost every game. Everyone was having fun. They'dtear onto the court, tense and eager to beat their rivals. By game's end, theguys were just playing hoop. About midseason 1995, the teams started mixing itup, with some Jocks and some Gangsters on each team-an arrangement that placedthe teams on more equal athletic footing. Both Jock and Gangster players approvedthe change.
But Jocks and Gangsters returned to their home teams for the finalgame of the season. This time, the entire school perched on bleachers inMemorial's gym, cheering at each play. Although the Gangsters took an early lead,the Jocks took the game, 56-36. "They had better lungs than us," Gangstercocaptain Ortiz graciously remarked of his opponents.
Were the games successful?Did they dissolve intergroup rivalry? The physicality of the play provided ahealthy outlet for group tensions. Weekly exposure helped the students becomebetter acquainted. But claiming basketball transmuted angry enemies into bosompals would be an exaggeration. It would be more truthful to say thatgangster-jock antagonism had changed into cordial interactions between thegroups.
"As soon as you get out there, the game is really heated. By the end,you're real tired, and you're just playing basketball," said Jock cocaptainMichael Garduño.
"Before, when we'd walk by each other, we'd push andmad-dog and talk smack. Now, there's nothing like that going on," Gangster cocaptain EliOrtiz said.
"It made our school better since November," added Jock cocaptainRonnie Flores. "We learned to deal with one another. In the hall, we respect eachother."
And Principal Carmen Holguin's assessment? "I think it worked real wellbecause they policed themselves," she said. "It was a big deal for them to beable to go to the gym. They were taking care of business, and it was a real honorfor them to be able to say, 'We're taking care of business.' They'd proventhemselves."
As with the treaty, the boys themselves were responsible for makingthe games a success. The handful of students who had caused problems helped solvethem. And every student at Memorial Middle School was the safer for it.
Note: The names of all students were changed for this article.
Next Article: Playing it Safe with School Safety Programs